St. Petersburg priest regrets guilty plea
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Matthew Berko said it was a mistake to plead guilty to sexually molesting a 14-year-old girl. He said he entered the plea because he wanted to put the troubling episode behind him.
Seventeen years later, though, the charge has resurfaced. Wednesday night Berko's 1985 molestation conviction in Canada was revealed on ABC News.
Berko, pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, said his attorney had offered him several options for dealing with the accusation.
"Regretfully, I picked the one to plead guilty because I was fearful of dragging the church, my name, through the mud," he said.
"I asked him whether there would be much harm in that, and he said it would be a summary type of thing and you'll get a sentence and that would be the end of it. I was naive enough to concur with that."
Speaking from his office in Ontario, attorney Kenneth Harris acknowledged that he had represented Berko, but he said client confidentiality issues kept him from discussing the case.
Berko's accuser, Alexandra Myhal, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. Reached at her Florida home, the victim's mother, Katharina Myhal, would only say angrily, "That's his word against mine."
In an interview with ABC, Berko's accuser said that the priest told her that her skin was smooth and that he fondled her.
Wednesday, Berko gave his version of what had occurred on Jan. 19, 1984.
On that day, Alexandra Myhal visited him in the rectory of St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mississauga, just outside Toronto.
"She claimed she came over for copying, but I didn't see any material for copying," Berko said. It appeared to me that it was just another plan of hers to spend time with me. ...
"She came over and we started to talk and that was it. I offered her a small glass of wine, which I did for all my friends. This was church wine. ... Just as she was ready to leave, I kissed her on the cheek and led her to the door."
Berko said he did not molest the 14-year-old.
"Why should I have any relations with a youngster when I had a multitude of opportunities of so-called propositions from young married women in the parish?" asked Berko, who had been married for 17 years and has two children and three grandchildren.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church recognizes the pope as its head but adheres to an Eastern tradition of worship and allows priests to be married if they do so before ordination.
Berko's St. Petersburg church is not under the jurisdiction of Bishop Robert N. Lynch and the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. Berko's bishop, Robert Moskal, is located in Parma, Ohio. He could not be reached for comment.
As Berko recalls it, almost a year passed before detectives showed up at his door. In the meantime, the girl never stopped talking to him, and her parents were still regular players at church bingo games and attended Sunday services, he said.
After pleading guilty to the molestation charge, Berko left the parish and served a year's probation in Connecticut, where he interviewed people who were on probation. A year later, he returned to his old church. Some parishioners were disgusted and picketed the bishop's residence.
Berko said the dissenters were only a small fraction of St. Mary's, which then had a membership of about 650 families.
Stefan Krywenky, a member of St. Mary's who winters in St. Petersburg, agrees. He said his son had been an altar boy under Berko. His young daughter had studied catechism with him.
"I never heard from my children something bad about Father Berko. Never, never," Krywenky said.
Berko remained at St. Mary's a year and a half after his return, but he left after the girl's family filed a lawsuit against him and the diocese. He was ordered to pay $100,000. The case against the diocese was dismissed. Berko said he has not made any payments because he has no money.
Since leaving Canada, he has worked in Connecticut, at St. Andrew's in Spring Hill and Epiphany of Our Lord in St. Petersburg.
Krywenky's second wife, Luba, has known the priest since he arrived at the St. Petersburg church five years ago.
"Here, everyone loves him," she said. "He's a wonderful person."
Two members of Berko's congregation appeared stunned to learn of the charges against their priest, but they declined to speak on the record. Berko said he believes his parishioners were aware of his past.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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